An exciting time to be alive!
If you read this sort of blog, you've probably seen stories already about the latest discovery from NASA's Kepler mission:
This confirmation that there are other planets, not so different in size and composition from our home, do exist, and that the events that led to the formation of our particular configuraiton of planets is not unique, is a great success for science.
Astronomers and physicists asked questions:
How do star systems form? Can a system like our solar system form easily, or is our home unusual and unique? Do stars usually have planets, or are we just luck to be here?
NASA's Kepler team designed an experiment to test the models of star system formation, to try to answer these questions. They have succeeded in grand fashion.
Checking the Kepler website today, they report over 2000 planets discovered. Some of these may not actually be planets, but they have designed their experiment in a robust way that appears to lead to a very low rate of false-positive results. And they're only looking in a small patch in the sky. And their telescope can only tell us about planetary systems that we see edge-on, like looking across the flat edge of a plate. So they only detect the planets that just happen to pass between their star and ours. Which means that there are other planets in that small patch of the sky that Kepler can't see, but are surely there.
Growing up on Star Wars and Star Trek, I always harbored a nagging doubt that there was too much fiction in the sci-fi, and not enough science. Indeed, some of the miraculous engineering that makes fictional space travel as pleasant as a flight from Boston to L.A. still makes me cringe.
However, the basis on which all these stories rests is that in a galaxy full of stars, there must be billions of planets, and that enough of them are "just right" for life, and that that life will grow, just as it has done here on Earth - that basis is not false. As our knowldege of the world around us grows, we open up new avenues of wonder at the grandure and, in the end, familiarity of it all!
Another great development from the Kepler mission is that it provides a target-rich catalog for the Allen Telescope Array, run by the SETI Institute (http://www.seti.org/):
By spending their antenna time listening in the direction of known planets in their star's habitable zone, the SETI institute can greatly increase their chances of detecting extra-terristrial radio signals.
An exiciting time to live!